A Deceiver Deceived
Genesis 29:1 - 30:43
The Deceiver Deceived
Welcome to where you’re supposed to be!
If you’ve travelled overseas, you may have had that experience, at the end of a long journey, your plane touches down at the airport, and off in the distance, you hear a strange, but familiar sound.
As you get closer, you begin to recognise it, you feel your heart strangely warmed within you, and you realise, that happy, comforting sound you’re hearing, is the broad ocker Australian accent, of the airport staff!
You hear that sound and you know you belong! You’re where you’re supposed to be!
I was once greeted at the airport by an immigration officer whose accent was so strong, I think he must have deliberately practiced it to welcome home weary travellers!
Those of us who weren’t born here, just replace that with a South African accent, for example, and that will all make sense to you!
Because I reckon that experience is pretty close to what Jacob must be feeling in these opening verses of Genesis 29.
God keeps his promises (29:1 – 14)
It’s been a long journey for Jacob;, a bit further than from here to Melbourne, but now he arrives in the land of the eastern peoples, and he knows he’s close to where his relatives live.
When he encountered God in that dream in the last chapter, God had said I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go,
I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you
And now God has led him to exactly the right spot.
His GPS is telling him “in 500 metres your destination will be on your left” or whatever, and so when he sees a well, and three flocks of sheep lying near it, he asks the shepherds, verse 5, Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?”
“Yes, we know him,” they answered.,
and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.”
God keep his promises.
You might have noticed that twice we’re told the flocks were gathered there, but they weren’t drinking yet, because the stone over the mouth of the well was large,
Verse 8, we can’t water the sheep, “until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well.
Wells would often be secured with a stone to stop people stealing your water,
But this well has the equivalent of the Lockwood high security padlock on it, because it takes several men to move it.
The shepherds are just hanging around waiting, because they need the other guys to turn up, so that together they can shift the stone out of the way.
But verse 9, When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep
I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed, but more than any other world leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to photographed with his shirt off, doing, what he obviously thinks are manly things;,
And so when I read this, I always think of Vladimir Putin! Jacob kind of strips off his shirt, and in a feat of super-human strength, moves this enormous stone from across the top of the well.
It’s a little human interest moment, but even the fact that he uses a stone to help his relatives, and maybe show off a little bit to Rachel, it should just ring a few bells for us.
Remember Chekov’s Gun, none of the details are included here by accident. Last week, in chapter 28, what was the only other physical object that featured in the story?
It was a stone.
A stone was the setting for his interaction with God,
It was on a stone that he received God’s promises,
And it was with a stone that he responded to God’s promises.
Now, for us it’s a week later, and there’s a new chapter, and a paragraph heading, but of course the author of Genesis didn’t intend any of that.
He moves straight from the promises of God all happening unmistakably around a stone, leading straight into another episode, that centres on a stone.
It’s a reminder to us that chapter 29 is not isolated from what’s come before. These 2 chapters we’re looking at today really don’t make for pleasant reading, but the author won’t let us forget, even in the midst of this mess, that God is unfolding his plans of salvation and blessing.
And sure enough, what’s Jacob doing? Already in a small way, he’s being a blessing to other people,
He’s been doing what no other person has been able to do. He waters the sheep.
God’s promises are coming true.
Though, if our memory goes back not just to chapter 28, but back to chapter 24, we might feel a twinge of disappointment. Remember the last time someone came from Canaan looking for a wife, Abraham sent his servant to find a woman who’d be willing to marry Isaac, and when the servant encountered a woman from this family, who we know was Rebekah, his response, was to praise God and thank him for fulfilling his promises and answering his prayers.
Jacob’s response, is to do a Vladimir Putin, take off shirt and flex his muscles.
We see it right through Genesis, right through the Bible, and certainly in these 2 chapters;,
God fulfils his promises,
And blesses people,
Even though people more often that not, are flawed, self-seeking.
God doesn’t just bless the good and the great.
His pouring out his blessings on you in Jesus is not contingent how well you’ve measured up.
These 2 chapters give us a picture of God blessing and working through very flawed individuals.
God teaches Jacob a lesson (29:15 – 30)
God can even use the sin and selfishness of others, to teach his people, and shape them into who he wants them to be.
So Jacob has been with Laban’s family, for a whole month, and so his uncle says to him, Tell me what your wages should be.
Now this might seem like your dream job, when the boss says to you, “Name your price!”
And here learn that Laban has 2 daughters, the younger one we’ve met, but she has an elder sister, named Leah.
Leah means “wild cow”, and Rachel means “ewe” as in, not “you”, but, a female sheep! Good names for farmer’s daughters! Think about your father’s occupation, and imagine the possibilities for you your name!
Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Culturally there would be a price to pay for a bride.
Remember Abraham sent 10 camels loaded with loot for Isaac’s wife.
But Jacob has nothing, and so he offers to work for 7 years for Rachel.
but verse 20, they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
Isn’t that nice! The most romantic verse in the Bible!
When Jacob’s seven years are up, he asks for his wife.
Typically the bride would be veiled, not in white and tule and all that kind of thing l, but veiled more like women in Muslim countries. Face covered, only her eyes showing.
But when evening came, Laban took his daughter Leah, and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. 24 And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.
So it’s night,
It’s the end of day 1 of the party,
And Jacob doesn’t realise he’s been deceived.
And so When morning came, there was Leah!
According to the 2016 average income figures from Bureau of Statistics, Jacob’s paid out a bit over half a million dollars, and he gets his heart broken.
The deceiver has been deceived.
So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me?
I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
And you wonder if it started to dawn on him, as hears the words coming out of his mouth, remember his own name was an idiom for “deceiver.” He asks his father in law, “Why have you Jacob-ed me?” Does he begin to get a sense of his chickens coming home to roost?
Now he gets a taste of the angst that his deception has caused his family.
And it’s driven home by Laban’s reply, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one
But if we were to translate his words more literally, Laban says “It is not done in our area, to put the younger before the firstborn.”
Now, cast your mind back.
Why is Jacob here?
Why did he have to run for his life? Because he, the younger, put himself before the first born.
Laban says, “It is not our custom here, Well it wasn’t the custom where Jacob came from either, But he’d done it anyway.
It’s a pointed rebuke.
Not that Laban is committed to the building of Jacob’s character. That’s what God’s committed to, see how he uses Laban’s sin to teach Jacob?
Who here’s ever been hurt by the sin of someone else? We won’t do show of hands, it’s all of us, isn’t it?
Isn’t it great, that God can use even that sin and selfishness, to teach you, to make you the person he wants you to be?!
Laban just sees opportunities to get rich!
“Give me another 7 years, and you can have Rachel as your wife, when this week-long wedding feast is over.
Jacob agrees, he’s in love with Rachel after all, his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah.
And he worked for Laban another seven years.
But notice that although he’s working for the same goal as he thought he was earlier on, there’s no more they seemed like only a few days, no, these 7 years, are filled with angst and hardship, because of his new family situation.
God begins the work of building a great nation (29:31 – 30:24)
And notice that it’s because of Jacob’s love for Rachel and not Leah, that God gets to work turning this one man Jacob, into the nation that will be a source of blessing to all the world.
Verse 31, When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive. And so begins the growth of Jacob’s family.
And the family agony is recorded, in the names of these children.
So Reuben, as the footnote tells us, sounds like the Hebrew for “he has seen my misery”, and notice why she’s miserable. What does she want? Verse 32, Surely my husband will love me now.
She has another son, and she named him Simeon, because, she says, the Lord heard that I am not loved
And then another son whom she names Levi, because she thinks, Now at last my husband will become attached to me.
In 1998, an Italian dance music group released a song called “If you buy this record, your life will be better”! We perhaps are sceptical of that claim, but plenty of people were willing to try it, and the song peaked at number 3 on the UK charts!
I have no information about whether their lives did actually get better!
But often we think that, don’t we?
If I do such and such,
If I have this, that, or the other, my life will be better.
What Leah thought would make her life better, doesn’t work, does it? It never does.
But at least by verse 35, Leah has a moment of clarity. What I need is not more sons, or my husband’s affection. I need to live under the kingship of God.
“This time I will praise the Lord.” So she named him Judah.
And as we read on in the Bible, we learn that it’s through Judah, that the promise to bless all people on earth is fulfilled, because it’s from Judah’s descendants, that 1900 years later, Jesus is born.
The birth of any baby is good reason to give thanks to God,
But the birth of this baby is extra good reason, because he’ll be the means of God’s blessing and salvation being available to all families of the world.
You life won’t get better with the right child, or the right relationship, or whatever it is that we seek, but to live under God’s kingly rule, well that’s what life was supposed to be like.
You might remember they used to say of Charles and Diana, they needed to have “an heir and a spare!”
Well Leah’s now got an heir and a spare, and 2 over there! But that just makes the family infighting worse, doesn’t it?
The favourite wife has no children, so she gives Jacob her servant Bilhah, verse 3 of chapter 30, in the hope that she’ll get pregnant, and Rachel will then have a child.
Sure enough that’s what happens.
So they think, “let’s try this again”, and another son is born.
Rachel obviously has the same book of baby names as Leah. Her second son is named Naphtali, because of her great struggle with my sister.
And so on and so on.
Leah then gives Zilpah to Jacob, and if we weren’t appalled enough by Laban’s treatment of his daughters earlier on, now those women themselves, start passing their servants around, and the other sons and one daughter are born.
What are we to make of the immorality and infighting?
So what are we to make of the mess of all of this?
All of this was common in the age and culture, there’s no doubt about that,
But maybe it disturbs us a bit, that none of this is explicitly condemned here.
And certainly this is part of the argument used against Christians, isn’t it, to try and stop us speaking into the current attempts to redefine marriage,
To silence us on issues of human relationships;,
“Look at what your Bible says about marriage, don’t try and tell us what marriage should be like.”
But, even leaving aside for the moment, the fact that the Bible’s picture of marriage, God’s pattern for marriage, is for a life-long relationship between one man and one woman, that’s consistently the case throughout the Bible,
You can’t get around it.
But even if this episode was all the Bible had to say about marriage,
You would never read this and come away thinking that multiple spouses,
Sleeping with whoever you want,
You’d never conclude that that was good idea,
That it was commended in the Bible,
Or even, actually, that that the Bible was neutral about it.
This pattern of sexual relationships is a mess, and it has consequences that last for generations.
The bitterness and hurt from the earliest days of this family, accompany them for the rest of their lives.
And we might hope that perhaps Jacob cottoned on at some point, but he doesn’t seem to. Even by the time of the birth of Zebulun in verse 20, Leah still hopes, This time my husband will treat me with honor
The utter futility of seeking fulfilment in all the wrong places (30:14 – 18)
And there’s one little kind of sub-episode in all this, that highlights the utter futility in seeking fulfilment in the wrong places.
If I do this, then my life will be better.
Both these women are desperate to out-do each other, to have their husband’s love,
To seem more “useful” to him, in providing children,
So when that doesn’t work out for Rachel, she resorts to superstition to try and get pregnant.
Verse 14, Reuben finds some mandrake plants out in the fields, which his mum sticks in a vase on the kitchen table, Leah sees them and asks “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
Mandrakes were thought to be both an aphrodisiac, and it was also thought that they increased fertility.
Leah’s not willing to share, though, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
And yes, Rachel did marry Jacob after Leah had, but we know, and presumably Leah knew, that that was only because of the deception that she herself was a part of, sneaking into the bridal suite pretending to be her sister. So it is a bit rich.
But they agree, and Rachel swaps her husband for the mandrakes.
So Leah goes out to Jacob, “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”
Can you see the bitter irony and the futility of it all?
Rachel is so desperate to get pregnant that she resorts to the superstition of the mandrakes, but in order to get the mandrakes, she gives up her husband to Leah!
Now, some of you know, I studied health sciences at uni. I studied reproductive biology, under the very appropriately named, Professor Breed, And from 3 years’ study I know this, no matter how good a fertility drug mandrakes are, they will not get you pregnant if your husband is with someone else!
Rachel’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater! Almost literally!
Imagine being so blind to what you want, that you pull the rug out from under your own feet, but not even see it.
If that wasn’t bad enough, when Leah marches out to Jacob and tells him, I have hired you, guess what the word for hired is?
It comes from that word for wages, that’s already caused such a problem in this section, and is going to cause even more problems in the next.
And if all that wasn’t enough, we’ve already been reminded in this section about where babies come from! I mean, I don’t mean, where babies come from, but,
Did you notice in all this section, Jacob only speaks once? In verse 2 of chapter 30 he gets angry with Rachel and says “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
It’s God who gives children!
Not even servants who can get passed off as wives.
And Leah and Rachel themselves recognise this. The names of most of their kids are a reflection that the children come from the Lord.
Reuben, It is because the Lord has seen my misery
Dan, “God has vindicated me; he has, given me a son.
So blinkered is Rachel, determined to get what she wants, that she forgets what she knows to be true.
That’s a danger isn’t it? So desperate .for what we think will make our life better, that we forget what we know to be true
Eventually a daughter is born to Leah, and then finally Joseph, born to Rachel.
The later chapters of Genesis are all about Joseph, and even if you’ve only ever seen the musical, you know that God makes him something like Prime Minster of Egypt, and uses him to deliver not only that country through 7 years of famine, but families of all the countries of the world, come to him because of the famine.
And he gives them food.
Or let me rephrase that slightly, Joseph, son of Jacob, blesses people from countless other nations.
Does that sound like anything we know about?
It sounds like the promise of blessing, doesn’t it?
This is exactly that God said was going to happen through Jacob’s descendants, and now it’s starting.
You probably know that the Amazon is the world’s largest river, discharging 209 thousand cubic metres of water into the Atlantic every second!
There’s a bit of debate about where the Amazon begins, but the best understanding at the moment is with a river called the Mantaro.
But for some of the year, the Mantaro River is just a tiny trickle of water which drips past a dam in Peru. But over the next 7000 kilometres, that builds up, and up, and up, until that tiny trickle has become the enormous Amazon, discharging as much water into the ocean as the next 7 largest rivers in the world combined.
It’s still just a trickle at this stage, but God’s plan to bless all the people of the world through this one family, is on its way.
The sons of Jacob, each give their name to one of the 12 tribes of Israel, there’s still a little bit of mixing around still to happen, and one son yet to be born,
But how do those 12 tribes come about?
Through family dysfunction,
And sexual immorality,
And the rivalry between these wives!
Through a deceiver being deceiver.
It’s through people not trusting that God will achieve his purposes, that God achieves his purpose!
Of course when that happens, what does it show us? It shows us that it’s not about us! or what we do for God!
Clearly God didn’t choose Jacob’s family because they had it all together!
God didn’t give Rachel and Leah the blessing of children because they deserved it!
God prospers Jacob through a superstitious scheme (30:25 – 43)
But having taken us to Joseph, the author immediately moves on.
We’ve got to the point where Jacob’s having many descendants just like God promised him, and so now he wants to go home.
But Laban knows when he’s onto a good thing. please stay.
I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you.” 28 He added, “Name your wages, and I will pay them.”
Once again: Wages! We’ve been here before!
But I’m sure you noticed his language! the Lord has blessed me because of you.
Hang around with Jacob, get blessed.
That was Gods’ promise, wasn’t it? Other people will be blessed, because of you.
Well, it’s happening. Small ways, yes. But it’s happening.
And, even people who don’t deserve it, get blessed by God! Isn’t that interesting?!
Even people who we don’t think, should be blessed by God, are.
Probably no-one here thinks Laban should benefit from God’s kindness, and yet he does!
But before we get too hot under the collar, we’ve got to remember that that’s us! Perhaps not switching our daughters around in marriage, but undeserving of God’s kindness, that’s us!
The trickle of blessings here, becomes a flood in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, as he dies for us, specifically when we didn’t deserve it!
God’s blessings are always for people who don’t deserve them!
I’m not sure how you think of yourself,
Maybe there’s a few here who think of ourselves as deserving what we get from God, perhaps we’ve earned it, even if we’ve earned it only by being not quite as bad as someone else.
But Jesus said, the only people he’s come for, are sinners! People who deserve judgement and condemnation for living in God’s world, but treating God as if he doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter.
If you don’t think you’re a sinner, Jesus says he has nothing to offer you.
We might like to think of ourselves as better than Laban, who did, after all, use divination to determine that God has blessed him! The mind boggles, really! He’s all over the place!
But we are no more deserving of God’s kindness than he is,
Or Leah or Rachel, or anyone!
And here’s the danger, if we think we are, if we think God owes us, it means we haven’t understood our own sin, that we are rebels against God,
And we haven’t understood the blessing that God is working here, to bring into the world through Jesus,
Fortunately for Jacob, he’s a bit wiser now.
Verse 32 Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages.
Pretty straight-forward. Jacob gets multi-coloured sheep and goats. Laban gets plain coloured ones.
Easy to spot, whose are whose.
When my dad had a job that required him to work with tools, his tools all had a dot of green paint on them, to identify his from everyone else’s,
And my grandfather used to say, my grandfather who owned a toolshop, that any time my dad liked the look of one of his tools, it would mysteriously get a blob of green paint on it, and then it was undeniably and unmistakably my dad’s!
Well, no such gaming the system here!
Except there is!
Laban immediately removes all the ones with green dots, that is, the multicoloured animals, the ones he’s just agreed are Jacob’s.
So Jacob starts with, effectively nothing.
Verse 37, Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees, and puts these white sticks in front of the water troughs where the animals drink, and also mate.
We find out in the next chapter that the outcome of the spotted and speckled lambs and goats thing came to him in a dream.
But once again, even though God’s told him the outcome, he uses dubious methods to get there.
This is more superstition!
Mandrakes are not how you get children,
White sticks are not how you get enormous herds of speckled sheep and goats.
And yet what happens?
Well that is what happens!
God intervenes. He graciously acts.
And the passage concludes in verse 43, In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
The question we need to ask ourselves, is why?
Misunderstand the why, and we’ll misunderstand, not only the point of this passage, but also how we relate to God.
Does God get behind Jacob’s, rather hair-brained scheme, because he deserves it, he deserves to be prosperous?
No, we’ve already seen that nobody here deserves anything from God, they’re all pretty rotten and selfish.
Does God make Jacob prosperous because someone’s trying rip him off, and God’s always on the side of the underdog?
Well that can’t be it either, can it, because well, some people just miss out all their lives, don’t they? Because of the choices of other people.
Right ow, in the Horn of Africa, there’s the worst famine for half a century. 6 million people are at risk of starvation because of how we in the West choose to use our money.
God doesn’t always break in, and over-ride other people’s choices, even when they effect others.
Does God do this this for Jacob because he wants all his people to be rich and prosperous?
Well, we know it can’t be that either, because whether it’s through the pages of the Bible,
Or in the lives of God’s people around the world today,
Or in the experience of our church family here, we know that being a faithful obedient disciple doesn’t mean prosperity and wealth are coming your way.
But if we think any of those are the reason that God prospers Jacob, then we’ll be hanging out for our own herds of speckled sheep and goats, won’t we? Thinking God’s promised them to us, and then we’ll be disappointed with God, bitter at God, when we don’t’ get them.
No, God acts despite, even through Jacob’s superstitious scheme, because God had made a promise to Jacob, about blessing,
And growing to be a great nation,
And being a nation that would bless others,
And ultimately being the means of blessing all the world.
That is, God acts, here, because God keeps his word,
God acts here, because his promises can be trusted,
God acts here, because he wants to offer salvation and forgiveness to you and me, when these events reach their climax in Jesus.
God acts here, because whatever God says will be,
Whether we believe it,
Whether we don’t believe it,
Whether we don’t quite trust, and so try and so try to make a shortcut to the finish line ourselves,
It’s not a pleasant couple of chapters, is it? Actually I find it hard to decide which part is most distasteful.
You wouldn’t want them to move in next door, would you?
Your nice quiet street, 4 or 5 removalist trucks pull up one morning, and in moves Laban, Jacob,
Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, 11 sons and a daughter!
You can imagine the yelling,
And who knows what else!
There goes the neighbourhood!
I mean, it’s a family waiting for a reality TV show, isn’t it?!
Keeping up with Laban’s, or some variation on The Bachelor,
, and yet, here’s the family that God has decided he’s going to use to bless the whole world!
This is the family, who become the nation, whose job it is to show the world, how wonderful it is to live under God’s gracious and kingly rule,
This is the family, from whom Jesus will one day come, this unruly mob!
If you’ve ever thought that your family had issues,
That you couldn’t possibly take your place among Gods’ people, or fit in to God’s work because your family’s messy,
Or your relationships are complicated,
Or because life never quite turned out like you kind of hoped it might,
If you think that your failures, or your bad decisions put you in some sort of second-class Christian category, then be encouraged by Jacob’s family!
Here is an episode that overflows with God’s kindness, when there’s really nothing about the human characters to commend them to us, and they don’t make much of a positive contribution to God’s plans.
Here’s our reason to have every confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s purposes. God’s promises come true, even despite the pretty ordinary raw materials that he’s got to work with.